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Contagion!

Science and Technology, Environment, Society and Morals

Some years ago Michael Crichton wrote a novel about an unstoppable virus--this one was alien in origin--threatening world-wide infestation and death. Well, we have our own version of the Crichton nightmare right here in Wisconsin and UW-Madison. In a mind-boggling exercise in scientific irresponsibility, a UW researcher has genetically modified the H5N1 avian influenza--the so-called bird flu--virus into a human-transmissable organism.

A little background. Some years ago there was wide concern, bordering on panic, about the H5N1 virus that had surfaced in Asia. There is no cure or prevention for this virus, which originates in birds, mainly chickens. A  few human cases in Asia inspired the concern. The virus, however, turned out to be only rarely transmissable to and between humans. It apparently must penetrate into the deepest part of the lungs to enter the bloodstream and its physical configuration makes this unlikely. The human cases were largely in individuals who were exposed to dried powdery bird dung which somehow enhanced human lung penetration.

The panic soon pooped out (I'm sorry!) as the virus did not mutate into human-transmissable form. However, a Madison researcher, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, along with a Dutch researcher, Ron Fouchier, have succeeded in genetically modifying H5N1 into human-transmissable form. Remember, there is still no cure or prevention for the bird flu, which is a particularly virulent disease with a 30% to 80% fatality rate.

These fools have created a human pathogenic bomb! For what reason is unclear except to publish papers which they fully intended to do until federal health agencies, including the CDC, prevailed upon them to desist. They magnanimously agreed to a 60-day "cooling off" period, after which ... what?  The World Health Organization (WHO) has been urged to meet and discuss the situation. Discuss what?! If this thing gets out, we are screwed! People will drop like flies around the world. This is the most irresponsible misuse of science I have ever encountered! These two idiots should be condemned and their labs burned to the ground.

To provide some perspective, let me briefly discuss containment. The large research facility UW-Madison built to keep Kawaoka from hopping to the University of Pittsburgh "boasts" Level 3-Agricultural containment. This is totally inadequate for such a lethal organism. It's fine for hoof-and-mouth disease, but not a pandemic-generating killer virus.

There is a facility in Maryland that conducts research into deadly pathogens. It is called USAMRIID--The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases--that was originally built to research germ warfare agents. It possesses the only Level 5 containment facility in the country, if not the world. Level 5 contains nice little buggies like Ebola. Entry is restricted to only a very few researchers dressed in hazard suits and helmets with self-contained air supply. You've seen these in movies. The facility has negative air pressure to keep anything airborne from escaping. It is located 40 feet underground to invest even greater security.

The USAMRIID folks know how to contain a deadly contagious organism. UW-Madison does not, and neither do the Dutch! You may ask why these two nitwits are doing this. They claim to want to research this thing in a transmissible form. But this is not useful, since if the H5N1 does mutate spontaneously, there is no certainty that it will mutate into the form that was genetically created. Such research is useless. This was done solely to generate and publish papers and hopefully get research grants. These guys actually were going to publish detailed descriptions of their process, which caused the CDC and NIH to go ballistic. Other research scientists around the world have loudly condemned this research as irresponsible and unjustifiably dangerous.

I have great affection for science, but this is not what science is about. Science is supposed to expand knowledge of our environment to the betterment of mankind. This appalling corruption of science does not do this. This potential monster should be destroyed and its creators ostracized. 

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